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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gloomy Gathering Nominates Lebed

The Congress of Russian Communities chose Alexander Lebed as its presidential candidate Thursday at a conference so gloomy that, as one participant complained, it resembled a funeral more than a campaign kickoff.

Lebed, the deep-voiced retired general with the neatly slicked and parted hair, is famous for restoring peace to Moldava's war-torn Transdnestr Republic. His reputation ballooned when he was removed from command of the 14th Army as punishment for criticizing the war in Chechnya, and his gruff charisma is legendary.

"Not long ago, a woman who said she would vote for Lebed as president was asked why, and she answered, 'Because when I hear his voice, I start to quiver,'" recounted Alexander Oslon, a sociologist who tracks elections as director of the Public Opinion Foundation. "Some people vote based on what they think of a candidate's positions. Some ask their neighbors who to vote for. And some quiver at Lebed's voice."

But no one seems to be quivering much for Lebed these days. The CRC had been expected to steal the supporters of fellow nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in last month's Duma elections, but that did not happen. Zhirinovsky's party came in second with 11.18 percent of the vote. The CRC, despite Lebed's drawing power, got only 4.31 percent. That was shy of the 5 percent minimum for a share of the Duma seats.

Now, with Lebed and Zhirinovsky again competing for the same supporters, Lebed's chances look dimmer and dimmer. Thursday's conference should have been a great opportunity for Lebed to steal Zhirinovsky's thunder, coming as it did just one day after Zhirinovsky was chosen as his party's official presidential candidate.

Zhirinovsky, with his usual erratic passion, had on Wednesday suggested napalming Chechnya and "smearing the walls" with the terrorists who attacked Kizlyar. As bands struck up patriotic songs, Zhirinovsky would segue from his speech into barking out the well-known verses. At one point, he knelt to kiss the flag of the Russian navy.

It was wonderful theater, and the CRC could have learned a lot. On Thursday, Lebed and Yury Skokov -- who chairs the party and himself is an ambitious politician -- walked together, unapplauded and unnoticed, onto a bare, empty stage. Lebed, in a dark suit and V-neck sweater, stood for a few seconds to stare at a quiet, dimly lit hall where just a third of the seats were taken. He then sat next to Skokov behind a wooden table long enough for the Last Supper and bare except for four green bottles of mineral water.

Skokov began to speak ploddingly, saying that the CRC had done poorly in the Duma elections but it now was looking for allies and finances, and tidying up some unclear moments in its ideology and program, and that the party's leadership had decided to put forth as its presidential candidate Lebed, Alexander Ivanovich.

Dead silence. Skokov paused. Lebed stared at the crowd. The crowd stared at Lebed. Skokov continued, reciting Lebed's biography.

Then Lebed rose to polite applause, wrestled the microphone into place and began to speak. His call for "a politics of national pragmatism" and an end to anti-inflationary economic policies, which he derided as "cemetery stabilization," earned another polite round of applause. But regional party leaders who followed stole the show with their far more passionate and coherent speeches -- so much so that, returning from a 15-minute break, Skokov joked that they had been discussing replacing Lebed with that fiery guy from Krasnoyarsk.

It was a weak attempt at humor, and it did little to lighten the mood. It was followed by Alexander Fyodorov, a delegate from Sverdlovsk, who took the podium to complain, "I've got the impression we're at Mitterrand's funeral! It's about the same atmosphere."

Fyorodov continued, addressing Skokov, who sat unmoved throughout, his face propped on his fist: "Frankly, Yury Vladimirovich, you are the main reason, sitting there ... as if you can barely hold back the tears."

Someone called out, "Maybe it will be better after lunch!" But other than that, there was no real opposition voiced to Fyodorov's gripe.